Most students with special needs are not recognized as requiring special education and related services until they are in elementary school. In this article we provide a detailed look at the process by which these children are identified and how they are served during the school years. As we present this information, keep in mind that while federal laws apply to all school districts and schools in the United States, state and local laws may also be applied, and they may vary. Therefore, as a new teacher, whether in special education or general education, you should familiarize yourself with local policies that address referral and placement procedures for students with special needs.

Identification through Parents, Teachers, and Screening

During the early elementary school years, school officials might recognize a child as a possible candidate for special education services in different ways. In many cases, parents may feel their child is having difficulty and discuss this issue with the teacher. This discussion might lead to a formal evaluation that may confirm that the child is eligible for special education services. Even without input from a parent, the teacher may recognize that the child is having learning or behavioral difficulties and request a formal evaluation. If this occurs, the school notifies the parents to ask for their consent to allow the evaluation process to begin.

Additionally, most school districts use screening tests to find children who might have special needs. These screenings look for academic or learning problems, behavioral problems, or sensory or physical needs of young children. It is important to note that large-scale screening procedures are only intended to help identify students who potentially have special needs. The testing instruments used for screenings do not possess the technical qualities that would allow a definitive determination to be made about a student's eligibility for special services. For this to occur, only an individual evaluation procedure can be used.

Early Intervening Services

Historically, regardless of the source of concern about the child—parental worry, teacher observation, or a screening process—most school districts would not refer a child experiencing academic or behavioral difficulties for an initial eligibility evaluation until after attempting a prereferral intervention. The child would continue in the general education classroom while this special effort was undertaken to address academic or behavioral needs.

Prereferral interventions have never been required under federal law, and they still are not; but over the years many states have required their school districts to use them, and most of the other states have strongly recommended them to their school districts (Buck, Polloway, Smith-Thomas, & Cook, 2003). Under IDEA 2004, school districts may use a portion of their federal special education funds (up to 15%) to "develop and implement coordinated, early intervening services … for students in kindergarten through grade 12 (with a particular emphasis on students in kindergarten through grade three) who have not been identified as needing special education or related services but who need additional academic and behavioral support to succeed in a general education environment" (U.S. Department of Education, 2005, italics added). This means that the U.S. Department of Education would like school districts to successfully serve students in general education rather than identify them as eligible for special education services.

Aligned with this new option is the relatively new practice of using response to intervention (RTI) as a basis for decision making about placing many children in special education. RTI is a process whereby the decision to place a child in special education is made based on how well he or she does or does not improve after different levels of intervention have been attempted instead of basing the decision on formal tests (Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003).

When a child is identified as needing prereferral or early intervening services, this is not technically a special education placement. Nevertheless, most state and local policies require that schools notify parents as soon as they recognize a possible problem. At this stage school administrators usually will invite the parents to provide information and participate in planning the intervention as well as ask them to provide support at home.

As we have noted, prereferral interventions have been used for many years. One of the most common models is the teacher assistance teams approach (Chalfant, Pysh, & Moultrie, 1979). Teacher assistance teams (or TATs, known also as prereferral assistance teams, child study teams, or general education assistance teams) are comprised of professionals such as teachers, administrators, and specialists (e.g., a school psychologist or a special educator) who collaborate to come up with tactics that will help the general education teacher increase the student's success in the general education classroom. Often a structured, collaborative, problem-solving, team approach is used to create successful intervention strategies (Bangert & Cooch, 2001; Fuchs et al., 2003). The prereferral intervention is usually tried for a specific amount of time and then evaluated. It can include modifications in different areas such as changes in the curriculum, instructional procedures, classroom management, or the classroom environment (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2000).

The early intervening option expands and enhances the traditional prereferral practice, placing greater emphasis on trying to find effective interventions to keep students in general education. Using the RTI approach, schools are likely to follow a practice such as this (Fuchs et al., 2003):

  1. Students receive generally effective instruction from their classroom teacher.
  2. Their progress is monitored.
  3. If they are not successful, additional or different support is provided in the general education program.
  4. Their progress continues to be monitored.
  5. If they still do not succeed, they may be evaluated for special education services or assigned to receive these services.